Britten: The Canticlesby Ian Bostridge
Religious musical works in the 18th and 19th centuries were usually set on a large scale, and it wasn't until the 20th century that composers began to return to the intimate forms of the Baroque. Benjamin Britten wrote big religious pieces, of course (the most famous being the War Requiem ), but he also created smaller settings, like these exquisite Canticles. The first, "My Beloved Is Mine" (1947), is a cantata for tenor with piano accompaniment -- a cross between song and scena -- while each of the remaining five explores more colorful combinations: Canticle II adds an alto (a countertenor here); Canticle III, a solo horn; Canticle IV, a countertenor and baritone; and a harp replaces the piano in Canticle V. Composed over a period of 30 years, they also chart Britten's development, though they form a very satisfying set when performed together. All five were created specifically for Peter Pears, Britten's lifelong partner, and have attracted many fine tenors over the years. Ian Bostridge is not as sweet-toned as Anthony Rolfe-Johnson on Hyperion, nor as starkly dramatic at Pears (Decca, currently unavailable). What he offers, instead, is an intense and compelling response to the text. His voice has an unearthly beauty, too, that seems ideally suited to these religious texts. David Daniels is perhaps a bit too soft-grained in Canticle II ("Abraham and Isaac"), originally composed for Kathleen Ferrier's rich contralto, but he is back in his element in Canticle IV ("Journey of the Magi"). Baritone Christopher Maltman is marvelously expressive in his small part in the same work. Julius Drake, Bostridge's regular pianist, plays with a gentler touch than Britten himself did, but there is no denying the beautiful, atmospheric sounds he conjures up from his fingertips. (If only he had been recorded with a touch more presence.) The disc is filled out with seven charming and quite clever folk-song arrangements, where each of the three singers has a chance to shine.
- Release Date:
- Emi Classics
- Canticle I: My Beloved Is Mine, for high voice & piano, Op. 40
- Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac, for alto, tenor & piano, Op. 51
- Canticle III:Still Falls the Rain, for tenor, horn & piano, Op. 55
- Canticle IV: The Journey of the Magi, for countertenor, tenor, baritone & piano, Op. 86
- Canticle V: The Death of St Narcissus, for tenor & harp, Op. 89
- The Plough Boy, folksong for voice & piano (Folk Songs, Vol. 3)
- The Salley gardens, for voice & piano (Folk Songs, Vol. 1)
- The Foggy, Foggy Dew, for voice & piano (Folk Songs, Vol. 3)
- There's None to Soothe, for voice & piano (Folk Songs, vol. 3)
- O Waly, Waly, for voice & piano (Folk Songs, Vol. 3)
- The Ash Grove, for voice & piano (Folk Songs, Vol. 1)
- Greensleeves, English folk song
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With tones alternately dream-like and discordant, Benjamin Britten could certainly write music that can challenge as well as soothe, and his five canticles are no exception. Amazingly, he wrote these canticles over a 27-year period, the first in 1947 and the last in 1973 near his death, yet in spite of each canticle’s individuality, they feel very much like parts of a whole piece. The two longest canticles, “Abraham and Isaac”(Canticle 2) and “Journey of the Magi” (Canticle 4, based on the poem by T.S. Eliot), are the most dramatically effective. Canticle 2 is especially moving because of the touching story it tells of the sacrifice of the child Isaac for his father Abraham only to be spared at the last minute. Canticle 4 provides an emotional retelling of the Three Kings’ journey to the Christ child heightened by the immaculate blending of the three distinct voice types. It is no coincidence that countertenor David Daniels plays a prominent role in both as he is a highly skilled and versatile actor when it comes to playing a king or evoking the pleas of an innocent child. The voice, of course, is unparalleled. Tenor Ian Bostridge sings prominently on all five canticles and does a fine job throughout, in particular, with his diction and tone. He is called on to exhibit a wide variety of emotions, and he rises to the challenge despite the towering shadow of Peter Pears. The last twenty minutes of the disc are devoted to a wide array of English folk songs, and this is where each singer gets to have an opportunity to shine in solo turns. In particular, baritone Christopher Maltman does a fine job on “The Plough Boy” and “The Salley Gardens”. Although Britten is not for everyone’s taste, this is a beautifully realized recording with three great singers at their peak, and special mention needs to go to pianist Julius Drake who accompanies with great skill.
Benjamin Britten was a prolific composer who managed to conquer every range of musical writing - chamber works, symphonies, operas, big choral works, song cycles for both soloist and orchestra and soloist and piano, children's works, ballets, works for amateur performers (such as the Church Parables), concerti, and works for solo instruments. There are few composers even today who understood the complexities of the English language as a source of lyrics as did Britten and though all of his works are penultimate examples of this talent, surely the Five Canticles are the zenith of this gift. The Canticles were composed over a thirty-year period (1947 - 1974) and are a microcosm of Britten's development as a composer and philosopher. The five works are all inspired by religious themes and yet they also can be seen as occult references to Britten's own homage to his sexual proclivity. Here the canticles are sung impeccably by Ian Bostridge, tenor, David Daniels, countertenor, and Christopher Maltman, baritone and the series is beautifully united by the pianism of Julius Drake (with collaboration of harpist Aline Brewer and horn player Timothy Brown). To review each canticle would take far too much space, but at least some mention must be paid to the opening of the second canticle (Abraham and Isaac) in which the voice of God telling Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son is intoned by close harmony duet by Bostridge and Daniels: the effect is ethereal and wholly spiritual. Each of the five canticles is successful on every level. Accompanying the Canticles are seven of Britten's Folksong arrangements and each of the three singers is given time and interpretive flair for each one. It would be difficult to imagine three better matched singers than Bostridge, Daniels, and Maltman - three artists who continue to grow in stature (these recordings were made in 2001). This CD contains some of Britten's more difficult works - but also some of his most sublime. Highly Recommended. Grady Harp
I like Ian Bostridge as a singer and on this cd there is a selection of some really nice songs. I would recommend this to someone who enjoys this type of music.